Hurricane Sandy: The Long Road to Recovery

We are often asked how federal, state and local public dollars and private dollars work together to support recovery from a major disaster. Part I of CDP’s two-part series looks at how rebuilding is managed following a recovery, and specifically how public dollars play a role. 

Seasoned disaster experts recognize the importance of a wait-and-see stance in terms of emerging needs. But this spring, as the East Coast marked the six-month anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, another element of the waiting saw forward movement: the announcement of what federal funds would be available to damaged areas. This not only helps recovery shift from immediate to longer-term for community foundations and other funders. It also means a clearer picture of where the gaps are so far—and timely decisions about what still needs to be done.

“As funders, a lot of us have been holding back to ensure we have funds to support the rebuilding phase,” says David Okorn, executive director of the Long Island Community Foundation. “We’ve made a number of grants, both to on-the-ground groups that were addressing immediate disaster relief and to groups working on more system-wide issues. Now, as funders, we are developing a strategy to support the rebuilding phase and to avoid duplicating what is covered through government funding.”

As far as what is being covered—and what’s not—the decisions are complex. And that’s not just for funders; non-profits, government entities, community organizations, and families directly impacted by the October 2012 storm all find themselves faced with prioritizing “now” versus “later,” and ferreting out the areas where the largest impact can be made.

The biggest challenge, perhaps, is that most believe there simply isn’t enough money to cover it all. Though many credit funders for their generosity in response to the storm, the nation’s recent economic struggles have showed themselves in the coffers of those delivering services. Nonprofits and other organizations already were seeing rising needs and decreased funds before Sandy arrived, so hopes for government assistance have been high.

Of the $60 billion the U.S. government allotted for relief and recovery (pre-sequestration), $16 billion was for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to distribute as Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The first tranche of those grants includes $1.7 billion for the State of New York, $1.8 billion for New York City, and $1.8 billion for New Jersey.  Each area had to develop its own action plan for how the dollars would be spent, and all three have since been approved by HUD.

Those action plans, however, are not the only high-level insight being offered. There’s also the impending Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy report from the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, due to President Barack Obama on Aug. 2.

The strategy report differs in “scope, purpose, and authorship” from the CDBG plans, says Josh Sawislak, infrastructure lead for the task force. It focuses more on the full scale of federal response, including recommendations for improvements to the National Disaster Recovery Framework process and other policies, regulation, and statutes affecting long-term recovery. But even with such suggestions, questions remain. Among them, according to Sawislak, whether the local communities will continue to focus on resilience to climate change and other impacts after area recovery efforts are complete.

“The need for resilience is far beyond the work we do for Sandy, and community leaders and individuals need to start to incorporate it into all planning,” he says.
Okorn, who considers the public policy side of the issue a true “work in progress,” says his organization is working to ensure equity, accountability, and transparency in how the funds will be allocated.

Not So Resource-rich
Within the first few weeks of the storm, Okorn says, the community foundation focused on supporting a number of nonprofits that were “really on the front lines, helping their communities.” Many of them had already been running low on resources before the storm hit. A second round of grants followed a few months later.

Recovery continues, but he estimates that there are still 2,000 families just in his area still struggling, not yet back in their homes. Ensuring their recovery means helping them be heard—especially those who are in low- to middle-income brackets.

“One of the misconceptions is that Long Island is only Gold Coast Mansions and the Hamptons,” he says. “But Long Island has pockets of deep poverty. I think the storm highlighted those issues on a broader basis. Hunger is nothing new to Long Island; 300,000 are hungry and require food assistance on a regular basis. Hunger became an issue for those severely impacted by the storm, but for many, it’s an issue that happens 365 days a year. Affordable housing is another challenge. Many people struggle with that, and spend as much as 50 percent of their income just on housing needs.”
Dr. David Abramson, deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, says New York City is experiencing much the same; there’s a belief that the city is a “resource-rich area,” he says, “so it must be rebuilding at a rapid rate, and people must be OK.”

But there’s something he’s begun to see, and it’s indicative of misconceptions about the recovery as a whole.

“You have these neighborhoods that were inundated by water, where entire first floors had to be gutted,” Abramson says. “From the outside, it’s not so clear what the damage is. You can drive down the streets of a neighborhood, and it looks like it’s OK, it could just use a little tidying up. You wouldn’t feel like it’s a dire circumstance. But if you go inside, everything is stripped to the studs. There are no working utilities, and the inhabitants are just living out of the second story.”

High-level Decisions and Long-term Funding
In the same way, hasty decisions about rebuilding can—and have—seemed appropriate from the outside. But in some cases, work without forethought has led to sheetrock on top of mold that wasn’t properly remediated, “and now they’re having to rip it all apart and do it again,” Abramson says. “Consider the psychological implications of deconstructing what you’ve just constructed.”
Moving forward, decisions will continue to be influenced by insurance allocations, still-emerging environmental/climate change concerns, and how individuals respond to, for example, new floodplain maps and the option of property buyouts. Whether the rebuilding will involve building differently remains to be seen; as the State of New York’s Action Plan for CDBG disaster recovery says, the state “will use later allocations not only to continue to address these needs, but also to fund critical infrastructure repair and mitigation and community-driven plans to improve resilience and economic growth.”

How much of that originally allocated $16 billion will be available in the future depends in part on other disasters; the allocation covers not only Sandy, but also disasters going back to 2011 (such as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee), and whatever might happen through 2013—and not just in the northeast.  FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds also have been available for long-term hazard mitigation measures.

The upside, those interviewed say, is that the conversations following Sandy have been different from those following other events. Though high-level decisions and activity may not yet have trickled down to individuals, there appears to be more of an emphasis on including input from all facets of the population—including those most vulnerable.

Learning Best Practices
In terms of the recommendations being made, HUD requires that each grantee expend at least 80 percent of its allocation in the most impacted and distressed counties. That may mean some affected in other areas will have to go without.

But all in all, says Peter Gudaitis, president of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network and chief response officer of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), when it comes to focusing on long-term recovery, the public needs to learn more about best practices, and must become “much more effective” in advocating for access to the public funds available. The challenge is not a lack of intelligence; it’s a lack of experience.

“The community doesn’t know how to advocate for its long-term recovery needs because it’s never had a long-term recovery (specific to loss of housing and rebuilding neighborhoods),” Gudaitis says. “If this had happened in Florida, a state with decades of frequent natural disasters, it would be different. The public and agencies there are much more effective in advocating what their needs are, because they’ve had that experience. A region like the northeast doesn’t. There is no local braintrust for the most part about how funds are being allocated, and that does mean relying on outside expertise. As we all know, that’s not that easy.” It’s not just the geographic region that’s different, he notes; it’s also the scale of an urban disaster.  “In many ways, we’re breaking new ground here, doing something new, and we don’t really know what’s going to work and what’s not,” he says. “But we do know that private philanthropy is not going to be the resource it has been in previous disasters. So we need to reorient ourselves to tap into some new philanthropy that hasn’t been reached yet…. There’s no guarantee that the philanthropic sector will reopen its checkbook and make a long-term commitment to funding recovery. That might happen, but I don’t think it will happen. So the smartest thing we can do as a region is be effective advocates for how undesignated public monies are allocated to the rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

This is where NYDIS’ experience lies, Gudaitis says. As the administrator of the NYC Sandy Unmet Needs Roundtable, NYDIS is a long-term cash assistance fund and rebuilding resource spanning back to Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 Unmet Needs Fund was open until 2009, and Oklahoma City still has an unmet needs fund supporting families of the victims from the 1995 Murrah Building bombing.
“Recovery takes several years or decades,” Gudaitis says. “A community hasn’t recovered because philanthropic dollars are spent and programs hit their deadlines.”

So just how long will the recovery from Hurricane Sandy take?

“A lot longer,” Abramson says, “than people think.”

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